Group Sensory-Based Interventions

Sensory-based intervention (SBI) groups can be useful in schools and clinical settings to improve sensory skills, behavior and learning.  SBIs are the guided use of sensory strategies to improve behavior by addressing specific sensory modulation or sensory discrimination challenges. It is important to distinguish occupational therapy utilizing SBI from (Ayres) Sensory Integration, which is a client led treatment following a specific child led protocol.  SBI and Sensory Integration are both valuable but distinct interventions with unique research efficacy.

Sensory modulation is the ability to respond to functionally relevant sensory information while screening out irrelevant input.  Simply helping students understand their sensory modulation and/or sensory discrimination differences is an important first step in SBI.  Therapists can begin by discussing sensory modulation “energy levels” as low, medium and high, to help students identify when their energy levels are too high or low for behaving appropriately and learning.  Consistently using the color codes from the Zones of Regulation program can help students gain a better understanding of how their arousal levels affect behavior.

Blue designates under-responsiveness to sensory input, while green depicts an optimal quiet alert state for behavior and learning.  Yellow is slightly hyper-responsive, while red is an extremely hyper-responsive state that interferes with behavior and learning. Proprioceptive activities such as push ups can help some students lower their arousal level. energylevelconstructed

Once students can identify and modulate their energy levels, it is also important to consider if sensory discrimination disorders are negatively impacting behavior.  When in the quiet alert state some students can still become dysregulated because of sensory discrimination disorders in which they have difficulty distinguishing, interpreting and organizing the information coming in from all their various senses.  This can involve difficulty organizing pressure, touch, and movement.  Sensory discrimination disorders can also involve interoceptive input causing them to be overwhelmed by feelings of pain or hunger.  Sensory quiet areas or music/movement/mindfulness activities can help these students reorganize themselves so they are not overwhelmed.


It is important to help students learn to identify what they are feeling before they yell, hitting others or engage in problematic behavior “because they suddenly feel horrible”.   For students with developmental challenges it can be helpful to combine feeling faces with the color codes from the Zones of Regulation so they can use pictures to identify their negative feelings and arousal level and get assistance with finding self-regulation activities. feelings-zones

SBI involves the use of individualized adaptive equipment to improve specific goal-directed behavior, such as reducing noise and visual distractions with a study carol and noise-canceling headphones to reduce peer conflicts and increase attention.  It can also include massage, mindfulness activities, or embedded classroom tasks involving delivering a box of books for the teacher as a deep pressure movement break.  The most important and often neglected step is to identify and educate students regarding their specific sensory challenges related to behavior, and to reinforce all efforts to self-regulate.

Adaptive Equipment




Using FAB Strategies®

fabturtlestrat“Functionally Alert Behavior” FAB Strategies® is an evidence-based curriculum of environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies for improving the functional behavior of children, adolescents and young adults with complex behavioral challenges FAB Strategies ERIC document Complex behavioral challenges involve a combination of inter-related mental health, developmental, sensory and environmental challenges. The FAB Strategies® curriculum is individualized by occupational, physical, speech and mental health therapists for coordinated use in conjunction with the client, their family and teachers.  The FAB Strategies®curriculum emphasizes the use of a coordinated multidisciplinary approach that addresses specific goal-directed functional behaviors in the natural environment.

FAB Strategies® is useful for guiding integrated individual, group, and home program intervention by teachers, family members, as well as occupational, physical, speech and mental health therapists. Teachers, therapists and familys face the challenge of helping students develop the behavioral skills that support learning. This challenge has become more difficult given the increasing academic demands and numbers of students with complex behavioral challenges. It is crucial to help students with complex behavioral challenges because their behaviors interfere with these students’ and their classmates learning. The “Functionally Alert Behavior” FAB Strategies® curriculum can improve self-control in students with complex behavioral challenges.

The FAB Strategies Form guides therapists in developing an individualized program for improving the client’s functional behavior FAB STRATFORM Color  Section A environmental adaptations provide the structural foundation for FAB Strategies. The child’s response related to his functional goal guides the use of environmental adaptations. Environmental adaptations include adaptive equipment such as fidgets, visual schedules and adaptive techniques.

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Environmental enrichment through adaptive equipment, visual schedules, and adaptive techniques reduces aggression in children with behavioral challenges and developmental disabilities. When developing environmental adaptations, it is important to consider the dynamic relationship between the child’s behavioral, sensory, cognitive, and environmental challenges. Environmental structure and behavioral demands are interacting variables, with greater sensory demands suggesting the need for more structure. When children show improved self-control or demands are decreased, structure is reduced to promote independence.

Section B sensory modulation strategies help lower stress and enhance self-regulation, with the massage activities included in this section. Sensory modulation includes body awareness, basic mindfulness, touch, and motor self-control strategies. The Pagano FAB Trigger & Coping forms use pictures visually representing common environmental and body triggers as well as sensory coping strategies for children with behavioral, developmental, and sensory challenges.

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Section C positive behavioral control strategies improve behavior and communication skills. Learning social and communication skills significantly improves the behavior of children with developmental and behavioral challenges. Functional communication can be supported and rewarded through socially embedded reinforcers. For example, when a child says or signs “jump”, the therapist takes the child’s hands and jumps with the child.


Section D physical sensory strategies promote attention, behavior, and social skills through cardiovascular, dynamic balance, sensory motor, and sequential bilateral tasks. Children with developmental challenges are motivated to participate in sensory activities, making them an effective means for promoting behavioral change. FAB Strategies attend to a child’s arousal level so he can play without becoming overly excited. For example, if a child rates his energy level as “uncomfortably high” following play ground tasks he is assisted in calming down before returning to class.


“Functionally Alert Behavior” FAB Strategies® offers an evidence-based curriculum of environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies for improving the functional behavior of children, adolescents and young adults with complex behavioral challenges.  Application of the FAB Strategies®curriculum emphasizes ta coordinated multidisciplinary approach that addresses specific goal-directed functional behaviors in the natural environment.



Sensory-Based Interventions (SBIs) Improve Behavior

Occupational therapists use sensory-based interventions (SBIs) to improve the behavior of children, adolescents and adults with developmental and sensory processing challenges. SBIs are the guided use of sensory coping strategies and adaptive equipment to improve sensory modulation skills and behavior. Emerging evidence suggests that SBIs can significantly reduce distress and promote attention.


SBIs empower clients to actively substitute the sensory input provided through aggressive and self-injurious behavior with sensory coping strategies and adaptive equipment. However, SBI intervention needs to be goal-directed and specifically matched to the client’s needs and preferences. The use of SBIs has been included in the research supported Greenspan Floortime Approach for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Collaborative & Proactive Solutions Approach for children and adolescents with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and treatment models for reducing restraint and seclusion in pediatric and adult mental health facilities as well as schools OTPractSchoolOTRedAgg Reducing-Restraint-and-Seclusion  Continue reading


Applying FAB Strategies

I developed FAB Strategies (Functionally Alert Behavior Strategies) to help children, adolescents and young adults who have complex behavioral challenges.  The FAB Strategies Form guides the use of environmental adaptation, sensory modulation, positive behavioral support, and physical self-regulation strategies.  The FAB Strategies forms enable teachers, families as well as occupational, physical, speech/language and mental health therapists to work towards the same functional behavioral goals using consistent strategies.  The copyrighted FAB strategies forms are offered free of charge to therapists for use in developing home programs that improve functional behavior.  FABPre&KStratForm  FAB STRATFORM

FAB Strategies combines positive behavioral support and sensory processing strategies to improve behavior.   School occupational therapists can effectively team with parents and school staff to reduce school aggression, restraint and seclusion.

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Coping with Mental Health Challenges

Daily coping strategies for prevention along with coping interventions when symptoms are first noticed are extremely useful for managing mental health and behavioral challenges.  Many individuals confront mental health and behavioral challenges at some times in their life. Particularly those experiencing difficulties with substance abuse, extreme stress, developmental disorders or subtle sensory motor disorders (e.g., hyper-responsiveness, hypo-responsiveness, involuntary movements) benefit from regularly using coping strategies to manage their mental health and behavioral challenges. Mental health and behavioral challenges are eventually diagnosed as a depression, anxiety, Autism Spectrum, Post-Traumatic Stress, Borderline Personality, Psychotic or some other disorder that carries a stigma not seen in other illnesses.  While help is available it is up to each person to manage their mental health and behavioral strategies by actively using coping strategies.

The most inexpensive evidence-based coping strategy to reduce distress from mental health and behavioral challenges is doing aerobic exercise 30 minutes daily. The best exercises are the ones that individuals enjoy doing regularly. Any combination of walking, yard work, biking, running, swimming, fitness classes, karate, dance and sports are effective. In addition to lowering distress, aerobic exercise contributes to weight management and physical well-being.


The second coping strategy that is important for people who experience mental health and behavioral challenges to do daily is a relaxation activity. Relaxation activities include progressive relaxation, visualization, yoga, mindfulness, breathing, meditation, Tai chi, Chi Gong and prayer. Like exercise the best forms are any an individual is motivated to do daily for thirty minutes. Relaxation activities can be reinforced through participating in a weekly group class that can be found for little or no cost.


Despite the proven benefit of regular exercise and relaxation to reduce mental health and behavioral challenges many people experience problematic mental health and behavioral symptoms anyway, and will need to immediately be assessed for their need of counseling and/or medication as appropriate coping strategies. These coping strategies need to be assessed by a licensed mental health counselor, child/adolescent psychiatrist or adult psychiatrist. It is crucial to quickly find a mental health counselor and psychiatrist you trust. In addition,  some individuals also find it helpful to receive services from a licensed massage therapist for stress reduction or occupational therapist to modify their daily routines and life activities. Many individuals experience mental health and behavioral challenges and benefit from regular use of coping strategies to manage them successfully.


Brown, R. P. & Gerbarg, P. L. (2012). The healing power of breath. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Cramer, S. C., Sur, M., Dobkin, B. H., O’Brien, C., Sanger, T. D., Trojanowski, J. Q. . . . & Vinogradov, S. (2011). Harnessing neuroplasticity for clinical applications. Brain, 134(6), 1591-1609.

Levit-Binnun, N., Davidovitch, M., & Golland, Y. (2013). Sensory and motor secondary symptoms as indicators of brain vulnerability. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 5, 26. www.jneurodevdisorders.com/content/5/1/26

Perry, B. D. (2009). Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical applications of the neurosequential model of therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14(4), 240-255.

Talwar, U. K., Sharma, V., & Singh, R. (2010). Role of Yogic Exercises in Bipolar Affective Disorder and Schizophrenia. Delhi Psychiatry Journal, 13(1), 117-22.


Body Awareness Intervention Improves Behavior

Many adolescents and young adults with behavioral disorders (e.g., Autism Spectrum, Post Traumatic Stress, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa) have body image challenges that negatively impact their behavior and social relationships. This is especially true for individuals who have developmental, mental health, and/or sensory processing challenges. Adolescents and young adults with body awareness challenges can be helped to improve their social skills with body awareness interventions.

Developmentally appropriate body awareness intervention involving massage, touch, movement, relaxation and mindfulness activities can take place within their work, school, home and community recreation activities. Body awareness provides the foundation for mindfulness, meditation and other calming activities that have been shown to decrease depression, anxiety, distress, aggression and addiction. Developmentally individualized body awareness tasks promote the emerging development of self-control using individual and group trauma-informed mindfulness, yoga, relaxation, visualization, massage, sensory processing, and movement activities.

Regardless of their chronological body awareness activities must match the adolescent or adult’s developmental level to be effective. The most developmentally basic and clinically effective experiences of embodiment, based on brain gym activities for special needs www.movementbasedlearning.com www.braingym.org , provide sensory awareness of the front, back, top and bottom of the body. Two activities for providing this experience is the X Marks the Spot movement game


A second basic body orientation activity is the Roll therapyball on client core progression Strategy, in which a therapist specifically rolls a therapyball sequentially over the center, front, back, top and bottom of the body  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCD9JeFviKY  

Sensory body awareness experiences help develop adolescent and young adults awareness of their body and understanding of body based triggers for early identification of the need for coping strategies.


Frank, J. L., Bose, B., & Schrobenhauser-Clonan, A. (2014). Effectiveness of a school-based yoga program on adolescent mental health, stress coping strategies, and attitudes toward violence: Fingdings from a high-risk sample. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 30, 29-49.

Kovacs, M., & Lopez-Duran, N. L. (2012). Contextual emotion regulation therapy: A developmentally-based intervention for pediatric intervention. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 21(2), 327.

Silva, L. M., Schalock, M., & Gabrielsen, K. R. (2015). About face: Evaluating and managing tactile impairment at the time of Autism diagnosis. Autism research and treatment, 2015.

Taylor, S. E., & Stanton, A. L. (2007). Coping resources, coping processes, and mental health. Ann. Rev. Clin. Psychol., 3, 377-401.



Classroom Environmental Adaptations

Noise canceling headphones reduce noise volume for less distractibility and inappropriate behavior. Low noise volume in the class or home setting also improves classroom behavior. The class noise level should be kept at a low volume. Students tend to behave better when the noise level of the room is kept low.

A fidget is a manipulative or textured toy that is used to provide sensory tactile input so kids don’t touch others and are able to maintain attention. Fidgets and other adaptive equipment can be placed in a comfort box for responsible use during classroom activities to help increase attention and reduce incidences of touching items or individuals without permission. A comfort box is a customized decorated shoebox with the student’s name on it that contains touch and manipulative toys.  A comfort bag is filled with manipulative adaptive equipment and favorite toys or electronic gadgets (e.g., Nintendo D.S.,) that children can only access during high stress times requiring waiting or other high demands (e.g., haircuts, doctor’s appointments, shopping). The child has access to the toys as long as basic rules are followed, but if the child misbehaves all items are returned to the comfort bag and the appointment is ended.

A clinically useful adaptation for providing comforting deep pressure input is the pressure vest. A commercially available pressure vest, or clothing made from Lycra material hug the child providing pressure support. The lycra material can be bought as or sewn into clothes or worn under the child’s clothing. Likewise pressure shorts, bike shorts, or onesie wrestling clothes can be worn as an environmental barrier and sensory strategy to help keep kids from going inside their pants inappropriately.

A study carol is the use of a poster board placed on or between desks to help visually direct student attention to their own work by reducing visual distractions. This is particularly helpful for mainstreamed students who have a one to one assistant and need to visually attend to their desk in a noisy room with lots of movement. Students with sensory modulation or PTSD histories often are hyper-vigilant to those around them and benefit from directing their attention to their desks.

Best Carol Vest

The disk-o-sit is an air filled knubby disk that requires balance adjustments on an unstable surface to promotes subtle movements and provides deep pressure input. Because it challenges the student’s balance it helps with seated attention for students who have difficulty with sustained seated attention but have good balance and are not gravitationally insecure.

Sit: stable strategy involves the use of height and length of seating so children are in an optimally stable sitting position for attending to work and listening. For children with postural balance difficulties and fear of falling optimally stable sitting helps children to feel secure and concentrate on their work. According to the automaticity deficit hypothesis some children need to concentrate to maintain upright sitting and are distracted by this effort from attending or lack adequate postural stability for optimal proficiency in fine motor activities. Optimally stable sitting assures that children are upright and symmetrical, with the chair supporting their pelvis at approximately a ninety degree angle


Koegel, L. K. & LaZebnik, C. (2009). Growing up on the spectrum: A guide to life, love, and learning for teens and young adults with autism and Asperger’s. Penguin.

Kinnealey, M., Pfeiffer, B., Miller, J., Roan, C., Shoener, R., & Ellner, M. L. (2012). Effect of classroom modification on attention and engagement of students with autism or dyspraxia. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 66, 511–519.

Pfeiffer, B., Henry, A., Miller, S., Witherell, S. (2008). Effectiveness of Disc ‘O’ Sit cushions on attention to task in second-grade students with attention difficulties. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62(3), 274-281.